Foodies eat lab-grown burger that could change the world

Jeremy Hance
August 06, 2013

Yesterday at a press event in London, two food writers took a bite into the world's most unusual hamburger. Grown meticulously from cow stem cells, the hamburger patty represents the dream (or pipedream) of many animal rights activists and environmentalists. The burger was developed by Physiologist Mark Post of Maastricht University and funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin in an effort to create real meat without the corresponding environmental toll.

In order to create the burger, Post and his team extracted stem cells from two cows and employed thee to grow 20,000 muscle fibers, which were then removed by hand and pressed together. The researcher team added beetroot juice, saffron and breadcrumbs, with the end result being a biologically-real piece of beef in three months time but costing around $330,000.

But why create such a hamburger at all?

For animal welfare activists, it means producing meat that is truly cruelty-free. No animal died, or lived in suffocating conditions, for that single hamburger eaten yesterday. In fact, Sergey Brin noted that he funded the development of the stem cell burger due to his concerns over livestock conditions in modern farming. This issue has also pushed many animal rights groups, such as PETA, to help fund similar efforts.

The other issue is global sustainability. Although meat is craved by many, it comes with massive environmental impacts. As a food source meat is hugely inefficient, requiring more land, water, and energy resources than many other staple foods such as grains. Around a quarter of the world's usable land is made up of pasture, while growing food for livestock takes up around 30 percent of arable land. For example, most of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is linked either to cattle ranches or soy fields, the latter which is often used to feed livestock.

Cattle herd where rainforest once stood in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Cattle herd where rainforest once stood in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

The meat industry also has a massive greenhouse gas footprint: 5 percent of the world's carbon and nearly 40 percent of its methane is linked to livestock.

But in a world of seven billion people (and rising), demand for meat is not slowing down. In fact in many parts of the world where the middle class is growing—such as China, India, and Brazil—demand for meat is skyrocketing with large-scale environmental impacts.

According to Mark Post, the stem cell hamburger grown in his lab decreased land-use by 90 percent and energy costs by 70 percent.

"Twenty years from now, if you have a choice in the supermarket between two products that are identical and they taste and feel the same and have the same price—and one is made in an environmentally friendly way, with far fewer resources and provides food security for the population and doesn't have any animal welfare connotations to it—the choice will be relatively easy," Post told the Guardian. "People will start to prefer this type of product and then it will gradually transform meat production."

But how did the stem cell burger taste? One of the tasters, Hanni R├╝tzler with the Future Food Studio, called it "close to meat," adding "it's not that juicy, but the consistency is perfect."

Another foodie, Josh Schonwald, author of the Taste of Tomorrow, said the "bite feels like a conventional hamburger," but missed the fat of a burger from a live animal.

The burger heard round the world yesterday is only seen as a prototype. Commercial mass production is probably still at least a decade away.

Amazon rainforest and cattle pasture. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Amazon rainforest and cattle pasture. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

AUTHOR: Jeremy Hance joined Mongabay full-time in 2009. He currently serves as senior writer and editor. He has also authored a book.

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Jeremy Hance
mongabay.com (August 06, 2013).

Foodies eat lab-grown burger that could change the world.